University of Waterloo: Waterloo celebrates the life and legacy of Douglas Wright

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The University of Waterloo will celebrate the life and legacy of President Emeritus Douglas Tyndall Wright with a special event on September 23.

Wright, who served as the first dean of the Faculty of Engineering from 1958 to 1966 and as Waterloo’s third president and vice-chancellor from 1981 to 1993, passed away on May 21, 2020.

As his death occurred during the pandemic, the University was unable to properly mark his passing in a significant way.

In collaboration with the Wright family, Waterloo will honour the legacy of Douglas Wright, his achievements and how he shaped the University’s future at a special Celebration of Life event on September 23 at 11 a.m.

The special event will feature remarks and tributes from President and Vice-Chancellor Vivek Goel, dean of engineering Mary Wells and other university leaders, former colleagues and students, distinguished community leaders and members of the Wright family. The event will also include live music and video tributes.

“President Wright’s vision and drive from the very outset of Waterloo’s existence in 1958 helped propel us to where we find ourselves today,” Goel says. “While we mourn the loss of an extraordinary visionary, leader and educator, we can also celebrate his lasting impact on the University of Waterloo.”

Wright played a major role in moving the University into a whole new level of applied knowledge, patents and technology transfer.

Major computer companies saw the advantage of supporting the University by providing equipment and research dollars. For example, Digital Equipment’s $24 million donation bought eight new VAX machines that made it possible to computerize both the Oxford English Dictionary and develop the software, leading to the creation of Waterloo spinoff successes MapleSoft and OpenText.

He left a teaching position at Queen’s University to join a young upstart University of Waterloo in 1958 as the first chair of civil engineering. He soon became the first dean of engineering. While he was dean, Waterloo became the largest undergraduate engineering school in the country.

An extract from the Beyond Tradition documentary on the history of the University of Waterloo discussing the influence of Douglas Wright.

Wright left the University for a post at Queen’s Park. He became a deputy minister in 1967 with responsibilities initially for university financing, and subsequently, for social policy with the Cabinet Committee for Social Development.

In 1969, in response to concern about the mounting provincial costs for university education, the Honourable William Davis, then minister of education, put Wright in charge of the province’s Committee on University Affairs. Wright chaired the Commission on Post-Secondary Education in Ontario. From 1979 to 1980, he was deputy minister of culture and recreation.

He came back the University of Waterloo as president, and would lead it for nearly 12 years, throughout the 1980s and early part of the 1990s.

“His return to Waterloo as our third president signalled a return to the no-holds-barred restlessness and momentum of the founding years,” said Ken McLaughlin, historian and author. “He pushed, prodded and pulled us with him as he pursued academic excellence and social relevance.”

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